We sat down with the talented Chef to discuss food, Thomas Keller’s fried chicken, and life after the CIA.
To see what brunch at the Backyard is like, click here
EPJ: Having just opened the Backyard in the past year, what’s some advice you’d give to a young chef looking to do the same?
DK: My advice is to make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. It is one thing to run and oversee a kitchen crew and be able to produce amazing food, it is another to be the one who is completely responsible for them. Also there are so many small details that most people never think about, and those are the ones that can make or break a restaurant.
House pickle plate: Kimchi, hedgehog mushrooms, sunchokes, romanesco, onions.
EPJ: Chef Marianna Gardenhire is your partner in crime, both romantically and professionally. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of opening a restaurant with your wife?
DK: She is going to read this so I will say that she is perfect in every way.
EPJ: Good answer!
DK: Seriously it is as amazing as it is challenging. You have the person that you love by your side, but also your biggest critic. It is also hard when you find yourself always talking about work related things. Any married person will understand this: when it is good and things are working right there is no better feeling than looking up and seeing the woman that makes your heart pound.
Cheese plate: Nicassio Valley Loma Alta, Nicassio Valley Reserve, wild lettuces, meyer lemon marmalade, spiced almonds.
EPJ: Aside from bringing the bounty of Sonoma’s backyard to your patrons’ tables, is there anything else that inspired the concept behind Backyard?
DK: We wanted a place where people can feel as comfortable as they would in our backyard. Doesn’t matter what you wear or what you do, come in and be part of the community.
Wild Foraged nettle pesto, yellow foot mushrooms, wild watercress, Bohemian Creamery caproncino flat bread.
EPJ: I’ve had the pleasure of dining at the Backyard for both brunch and dinner (still need to try your Fried Chicken Wednesday nights!) and everything was fantastic as if each dish was your personal favorite…which dish are you most proud of and why?
DK: It’s very hard for me to say that I have a favorite dish. I love the production aspect of every dish; to see it begin with raw ingredients and end with a composed plate is amazing. We change our menu so often it’s hard to get attached to any one dish.
Wild line caught grilled Monterey calamari, Backyard citrus, wild foraged lettuces and spiced almonds.
EPJ: The Backyard is known for sourcing all of it’s ingredients from local farmers and growers and your menu seems to change regularly….do you think the “local” movement is just a fad, or do you think it’s actually a sustainable practice that will persevere?
DK: I truly hope this strong local movement happening all over the country is not a fad, but the way things are going to be. It’s a shift that needs to happen. We are very lucky to be able to do what we do, and I am not naive I know that sourcing as much as we do from local farms is not possible everywhere, but the progress has started and people want to know where there food is coming from, and how it was produced.
Bellweather ricotta cavatelli, confit wild boar, foraged nettle pesto, pickled hedgehog mushrooms.
EPJ: What criteria do you use when selecting your produce and meats?
DK: The biggest criteria is how they grow, are they using sustainable practices, do they care about the future of the land and the community.
Wild line caught halibut, Giving Garden carrots, Strong Arms Farm’s leeks, First Light fingerling potatoes and fava leaves in a St. Helena saffron broth garnished with wild foraged lettuces.
EPJ: I want to quickly shift gears for a sec and discuss some of your formal training. You graduated from the CIA and immediately started working for Thomas Keller, right? Aside from developing the famous Ad Hoc fried chicken recipe, what’s the one takeaway you got from that experience?
DK: I was actually working at Ad Hoc while I was in school, which made that a very intense time in my life. I was at school at 7am and then went straight to work in the Ad Hoc kitchen till midnight and sometimes later. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work under some of the most amazing chefs there. Professionalism is one of the core values that I took with me, but also that you do not know what your limit is until you’ve passed it.
Pepper Ranch Poultry chicken pot pie, Armstrong Farm carrots, New Family celery root and parsnips, First Light potatoes smothered in buttermilk biscuits.
EPJ: Is going to the CIA sort of like getting your MBA in that it’s more about the connections you make coming out of there, than the actual lessons learned in the kitchen?
DK: The CIA was a great experience, it is something that I am very happy that I did, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. It is a great place to get the fundamentals of what the restaurant world demands, but you will not come away with a great job and high paying salary. Even after culinary school you have to work your way up the line. It is a good stepping-stone. Also the connections that you make are amazing.
Stemple Creek, Ranch braised short rib stuffed cabbage, giving garden cabbage, red wine braised farro, grilled Roots of creation young onions, and pickled hedgehog mushrooms.
EPJ: What’s your favorite restaurant?
DK: I do not have a favorite restaurant. I love Ad Hoc, because working for Dave Cruz molded me as a professional, and I have always held that restaurant in the highest of regards, but there are so many great restaurants out there, and I have a different favorite for every emotion.
Buttermilk onion rings. These were possibly the best onion rings I’ve had in a few years and they were amazing dragged through the juices on the shirt rib stuffed cabbage plate.
EPJ: Rumor has it, you like to butcher entire carcasses at the restaurant….are you into offal and the odd bits of animals?
DK: I do butcher all of the meat from whole animals with the exception of cows. We get half a cow, and because of a lack of space we have it fabricated. We use offal for potted meats and will do a beef heart special one night. We respect the total utilization of whatever we bring in, just like we use the tops of our carrots for pesto, and the tops of our beets for braised greens.
Dry Creek Olive Oil Cake Trifle with Backyard meyer lemon curd, Strauss sweet cream, toasted almonds.
EPJ: Is there anything you won’t taste at least once?
DK: I guess I would try anything once, although I’m sure there is something that I would say ‘no thanks’ to.
Candy Cap mushroom ice cream. Really is amazing how the candy cap mushroom flavor when concentrated comes across as maple sugar. This is one of pastry Chef Gardenhire’s signature dishes and I think it’s safe to say she has a knack for artisanal ice cream.
Candy cap mushroom and date cake with huckleberries.
EPJ: What I love about cooking (and eating!) is that the possibilities seem endless. Every plate of food I eat or see is just inspiration for another dish. Who in the food world inspires you?
DK: I find inspiration in lots of ways, but mostly in the farmers we source from. They are as excited about producing the food that we get to cook. Nothing makes me happier than to see them excited about something that we created using their passion
And I saved the best dessert for the last…..the chocolate budino with salted caramel. This is so rich and creamy you won’t believe it’s in your mouth. You’ll feel like you’ve won the lottery with this triumph of cocoa goodness and smooth-tastic thick pudding consistency with a salted caramel cap. After your first bite you’ll want to ask for a smaller spoon so this bowl of epicurean ambrosia will last and last and last. Can’t wait to go back and visit perhaps the best restaurant in Sonoma.